Watching on the dark side

Sci-fi's fascination with dystopia.

Paul Kane

Topics Politics

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As any film historian or critic will tell you, the relationship between society and science fiction cinema is a complex and often symbiotic one.

Science fiction has always responded to and utilised high-profile or newsworthy events. In a sense, SF films mirror the important issues of the day, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that they reflect public opinion. For example, some of the first SF films – including Wallace McCutcheon’s The X-Ray Mirror (1899) and Thomas Edison’s The Wonderful Electro-Magnet (1909) – focused on electricity and X-Rays, because these were big news at the time.

A flurry of films followed the birth of nuclear energy and the first atomic bomb explosion. There was an endless parade of monsters trotting across cinema screens, mutated by the effects of nuclear power – the most memorable, and perhaps most understandable, being Japan’s Gojira, or Godzilla: a hulking green metaphor with attitude.

Ecology and nature were newsworthy in the 1960s and 70s, influencing films like Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1971) and Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973). Such films posited what might happen to the Earth and its population if we carried on abusing the planet’s natural resources. In Soylent Green we all turned into unsuspecting cannibals because of the shortage of food, with Charlton Heston trying to expose the culprits.

It followed that the rise of computer technology and robotics in the late 1970s and 1980s gave rise to movies like Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977), The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987). These films suggested that technology might spin out of our control, or that as androids we could lose our individuality, our humanity or our very souls.

All of these examples have one thing in common: they play on our fears of change, of new developments happening so quickly that we hardly have time to take a breath. In effect, they are warnings about what might happen; wake-up calls, or the present extrapolated to the nth degree.

Genetics have been used in science fiction stories for a while now – John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) and the movie that followed hinted at botanical tampering long before GM crops appeared. But because the subject of genetics is much more high-profile now, it should come as no surprise that the number of movies on this theme has increased. Recent examples include Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) and The 6th Day (Roger Spottiswoode, 2000).

Genetics even invaded the ‘Force’ in Star Wars: Episode 1 (George Lucas, 1999), where the young Darth Vader was tested for metaclorians – something Old Ben Kenobi never did with Luke Skywalker back in ’77.

Genetics is a fascinating topic for writers and directors; I myself have explored it in past stories. But the films mentioned above fulfil a dual role for the audience. They provide spectacle, something you don’t see every day – which is fundamentally what SF and any fantastical genre is all about. And they speculate on the future – sometimes the not-to-distant future. Such films are one way of dealing with rapid developments in society: not always a good way (sometimes they provide a knee-jerk response), but one that nevertheless appeals to a wide audience.

So why do they have to paint such a pessimistic picture? Dystopias have always been and always will be more popular than utopias. Films where everything goes wrong are infinitely more attractive to audiences than films in which everything goes right. You only have to consider the popularity of disaster movies for proof of this.

Without dystopias there’d be no Planet of the Apes, no Mad Max, no Metropolis. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) wouldn’t have been half as much fun, and wouldn’t have made so much money at the box office, if the genetically created dinosaurs had all been well behaved. No chase sequences, nobody getting eaten on the toilet….

The same is true of the tradition of the iconic ‘mad scientist’ that has built up through SF movies. This began with adaptations of HG Wells’ Invisible Man and Dr Moreau, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and continues today with genetic reworkings of the theme in Hollow Man (Verhoeven, 2000), where Kevin Bacon uses genetic research to make himself invisible, Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999), in which supersharks are the result of genetic manipulation, and Resident Evil (Paul WS Anderson, 2002), where an underground genetic experiment turns people into zombies.

These are considerably more exciting than a documentary film about what really happens inside a lab. The simple truth is Hollywood needs to make a profit, and if the fictional scientific experiments were harmless, there’d be no entertainment value for the punters.

However, there is a serious side to the movies too. SF has always commented indirectly on the state of the world. Cloning may have been used to great effect in Multiplicity (Harold Ramis, 1996) to demonstrate Michael Keaton’s comedic capabilities, but it also threw up the question of what would happen if this were real, if a clone of yourself, or three in this case, existed in the world with its own thoughts and actions.

Cloning also allowed filmmakers to bring back Ripley after she was killed off in Alien 3, but there was a cost: a room full of mutated Sigourney Weaver clones, barely human, that didn’t quite make the grade. Would we use these genetically bred people as slaves, like huge corporations do in the future of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)? And just how much power might these corporations have over us, or even over governments?

Would we put clones to work as policemen or soldiers as they do in Judge Dredd (Danny Cannon, 1995) and Star Wars: Episode 2 (George Lucas, 2002)? And what would be the ramifications of a war where you never ran out of fighters on either side? What rights would these ‘individuals’ have and would they be discriminated against like the mutants of The X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), with laws passed to try and separate them from the rest of humanity? Or would tinkering with genetics before birth lead to an Aldous Huxley-style Brave New World, with a hierarchy of genetic classes? And where would that leave the rest of us poor ‘In-valids’, as they’re called in Gattaca?

For all its negativity, science fiction cinema tends to hit some nails on the head. Although it rarely offers solutions, it at least raises questions about such issues. The best science fiction should inform as well as entertain – and I hope it will continue to do so well into the future.

Paul Kane is a film critic, author and lecturer from Derbyshire, who runs a personal website. His Dark Fantasy books include Alone (In the Dark) and Touching the Flame (buy this book from Amazon UK). This is a shortened version of a speech he gave at the Institute of Ideas’ Genes and Society Festival in London on 26/27 April 2003

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Topics Politics


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